Avoiding the stuffed-closet look

Author hopes to inspire a sense of design in the modern mixed garden

In The Garden

March 09, 2003|By Marty Hair | Marty Hair,Knight Ridder / Tribune

A lot of gardens could be classified as mixed, having woody trees and shrubs, vines and annuals and perennials.

And while it's fun for the gardener to luxuriate in a grand variety of stuff, the result can be like a closet stuffed to the gills, a jumble that falls short in vision, art and impact.

Tracy DiSabato-Aust brings organizational magic to the art and science of making a garden in a new book, The Well-Designed Mixed Garden (Timber Press, $39.95).

The author, known for her previous book on maintaining perennials, walks readers through design principles and site considerations as well as nitty-gritty aspects of plant selection and maintenance.

A mixed garden, she writes, offers advantages over one that is strictly herbaceous. For one thing, a mixed garden can be more interesting to look at, with its greater variety of sizes, shapes and colors. And a well-designed mixed garden that includes woody plants can remain attractive all year, with a more natural feel than a perennials-only border.

The latter is what many gardeners cultivated during the '90s' perennials craze.

As she toured to promote her 1998 book The Well-Tended Perennial Garden (Timber Press, $29.95), DiSabato-Aust says she realized people talked about just perennials or just bulbs or just shrubs, as though they existed in a vacuum, not a plant community.

"There seem-ed to be a need in how do we combine all these other wonderful plants with per-ennials," DiSa-bato-Aust says. It became fodder for the new book, which she says she wrote for beginning and advanced gardeners as well as professionals.

It begins with considerations of cost, maintenance, the site and objectives. Soil gets its due. According to DiSabato-Aust, 80 percent of plant growth problems start with soil, and she urges readers to get soil tests and incorporate organic matter.

For those addicted to the cut-this, prune-that aspects of DiSabato-Aust's earlier work, which has become Timber Press' top seller, the new book has a chapter on how to maintain a mixed garden with ingredients for a fertilizer she uses on acid-loving plants.

It also has instructions on how to overwinter tender bulbs and tubers, and a discussion of why a gardener might want to coppice a shrub ("to coppice" means to cut back a tree or shrub so as to stimulate new growth from the cut stumps).

A chapter showcases plant combinations DiSabato-Aust particularly admires, like the pale yellow chrysanthemum 'Autumn Moon' with orange Indian grass.

Each combination of two or more plants includes her discussion of design and maintenance specifics.

DiSabato-Aust, her husband and their son live in central Ohio on 35 acres with more than 6,000 square feet of pesticide-free gardens called Hiddenhaven.

In recent years, she has dug and replanted to incorporate more trees and shrubs, bulbs, annuals, tropicals and ornamental grasses as well as high-color garden art.

Among her favorite annuals are the dashing Cerinthe major 'Purpurascens' and self-sowing fillers like love-in-a-mist and Brazilian verbena. DiSabato-Aust has a new conservatory for overwintering tender striped cannas and elephant ears.

Keep the plant and seed catalogs handy because all these changes and mouth-watering additions are documented in The Well-Designed Mixed Garden.

The book has photos of both the DiSabato-Aust garden and some of her clients', along with appendixes classifying plants by design characteristics and maintenance requirements plus lists of plant, tool and artwork sources.

Although some readers' eyes may glaze over at the mention of design considerations like texture, form and color, DiSabato-Aust's photos alone are impetus to get outdoors a few weeks from now and start whipping things into better shape.

After all, the need for spring cleaning isn't confined to a jumbled closet. As DiSabato-Aust writes, "Plants can always be moved, so have fun playing with them."

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